I was invited recently to participate in a discussion at church focused on an interesting question: Why did Paul say that?
This prompted some thinking about the Apostle Paul’s puzzling and sometimes controversial words of counsel to early Christian communities.
In 1 Corinthians, for example, we find many questions and issues that Paul was called upon to address: whether to marry or stay single, to cut one’s hair or not, to seek civil remedy for a dispute, to leave or stay with an unconverted spouse, to eat meat previously offered in sacrifice to a foreign god.
While some issues Paul addressed now seem trivial and irrelevant, others, such as whether women should “speak in church” (1 Corinthians 14:26-40) or whether the rules of established orthodoxy should apply to those coming into the Christian family from different backgrounds (Galatians), have continued to be divisive matters.
My assignment was to select a few pieces of Paul’s advice and lead the group in considering why Paul said what he did.
Two principles from many years of working with students in biblical studies came immediately to mind:
1. Every kind of literature deserves to be read in terms of what it is.
Paul’s recorded thought is in the form of letters. They are not moral treatises, gospels or systematic theologies.
They are personal correspondence between our first writing theologian and the first- and second-generation communities of Jesus followers trying to understand their own faith experience and what it means for their life together.
2. Every text has a context.
Though obvious, there is often a tendency to focus on the words of a text to the neglect of the specific circumstances that lay behind it.
Appeals to “biblical authority” in support of various positions on the ideological spectrum, by lifting texts from anywhere in the Bible, frequently reflect this tendency.
So, with these reminders that what Paul said was directed to specific communities in response to specific concerns, I began to focus on some of the more “interesting,” shall we say, pieces of counsel.
What becomes clear pretty quickly is that there is a difference in Paul’s counsel between what we might call “specific advice” and what we might consider “general principles.” There seems to be plenty of both.
We see specific advice in his response to hair length and head covering (1 Corinthians 11), to litigation of disputes (1 Corinthians 6) and to the question about eating meat previously offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8).
These are the “what do we do in this case” kinds of questions – somewhat like, “Should I tell my friend that her blue outfit is not becoming to her?”
The concentration of this kind of advice is interesting in the Corinthian letters.
The general principles are seen when considering where Paul’s thought moved after he had responded to the specific question, and in the letter to the Romans where he is introducing his thought to a community he has not yet met.
The question of eating meat from the marketplace that had been used in an “alien” sacrifice in 1 Corinthians 8 offers an example of the progression from addressing a specific issue to offering a general principle.
Paul stated that freedom in Christ liberates the Christian from prohibitions against making good use of the meat, but there is something else to consider.
Not everyone has come to a place of freedom from those rules, so be careful that your exercise of legitimate freedom doesn’t become a detriment to another’s journey of faith (1 Corinthians 8:7)
“All things are lawful,” he wrote. “But not all things are beneficial and build others up” (1 Corinthians 10:23). More important than what you have a right to do is the well-being of the community in which you live.
In deciding what is right and wrong, the Jewish Law (and all its derivatives) is helpful, but a more important question, Paul said, has to do with the effect of a choice on the common good, especially in the realm of personal relationships.
A second example is found in his Roman letter, where Paul offered a general principle on the matter of citizenship (Romans 13).
He seems to assume that the political framework of society is a legitimate and necessary feature of collective life, and that respect and cooperation is what faithful participation in it requires.
Again, the principle seems to be not the faithfulness of any particular place on the political spectrum, but the underlying spirit of commitment to the well-being of the human family.
“Being biblical” and biblical ethics, it seems, sometimes have less to do with applying Paul’s specific advice to contemporary issues and more to do with embracing his general principle of an ethic of love and a commitment to community in its broadest and deepest sense.
Not a bad reminder here on “election eve.”
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.